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Building up evangelization and disability awareness—with LEGOs

“I have this desire to give hope and encouragement to those who may have challenges of their own and are not quite sure how God can use them,” says John Kraemer of the LEGO Church Project.

John Kraemer of the Lego Church Project. (Images: Lego Church Project Facebook page)

LEGOs aren’t just for kids anymore. The simple, colorful plastic bricks have given birth to a vibrant hobby enjoyed by all ages and spawned countless elaborate sets. They have taken to the silver screen with the huge success of the LEGO Movie franchise and to television with the British and US “LEGO Masters” shows.

Public displays by talented LEGO artists have also become popular. John Kraemer is one such artist, and over the past two decades, his LEGO Church Project has grown into a positive ministry for Catholic evangelization and for disability awareness. Each year (or season), John uses LEGO bricks to build a large copy of a particular Catholic parish; he uses around 20,000 pieces for each project, and the final construction weighs around 40 pounds.

CWR recently spoke with John about his faith journey, his joys and challenges, and his future plans for the Project. (Be sure to check out John’s Twitter page, where he routinely posts photos of the LEGO build in progress.)

CWR: Has the Catholic Faith always been an important part of your life?

John Kraemer: Very much so. It is pretty much the foundation on which everything in my life is built on.The Catholic Faith has been my guide through many challenges in my life. This goes back to when I was growing up. Faith and Family are the pillars that we relied on. Christ was always important to the family and the Church was the cornerstone in that.

CRW: Many people build LEGOs as a hobby. What made you decide to turn harness LEGOs for a public ministry?

Kraemer: It took a while and a few displays to help me realize that God wanted something more than just the building. Living with a disability, you sometimes question the role that God has for you. I know I’ve done this more than a few times. I slowly came to understand that it has become a mission of mine. To not only share the faith creatively with The Project. But also to show what we can do with our talents. No matter what challenge we face.

CWR: What do you hope to accomplish through the LEGO Church Project?

Kraemer: No matter what challenge or disability you face, God can still use your talents.

I am trying to share the faith in the most creative way I can by using LEGO. I also show that even with my own challenges with mild cerebral palsy that God can do amazing things in our lives if we desire it. I have this desire to give hope and encouragement to those who may have challenges of their own and are not quite sure how God can use them.

CWR: I’m sure that the Project has evolved and expanded significantly over the years, both as a LEGO build and as a ministry. Tell us a bit about that.

Kraemer: The build themselves have become more complex and more detailed. Most of this is stuff that most people won’t see unless they follow the build progress. Over the years I’ve learned new tricks in how to design and build. Along with expanding my collection of parts. It allows me to show more detail than I ever could have in the past.

The ministry has also been able to expand thanks to social media, along with the various podcasts and radio programs that I’ve been able to take part in. This has allowed me to take things into a direction where I am able to highlight the important issues. More so when they relate to the area of disability. I’ve also been able to do some blogging. Given my challenges with mild cerebral palsy, issues related to disability and the Church are extremely important to me. Which is why I am always wanting to be a voice for that.

CWR: Has the Project helped you along your personal faith journey?

Kraemer: At the core The Project has been about prayer. So, in that aspect it has allowed me to spend more time in prayer. I say that because as I am working, I am using my hands to pray. For all the intentions in my heart and for the things going on around me that I see. It allows me to dive deeper into the faith since it is a parish that I am building, and our parish communities are the foundations on which our faith is part of.

CWR: Is there an aspect of the Project (conceptual, the build, the display) that brings you the most joy?

Kraemer: While I have said The Project is a challenge, testing my limits on what I am able to do, it is also something that I love. I find great peace in being able to work through the problems that come up. While it does take a decent amount of time to build this, it is time well spent. I am always looking forward to the finished build. When I sit down with the bricks I never know where God is going to take me. Sometimes the greatest challenges offer the most rewards. My work shows this.

When The Project is finished, I also love sharing my work, either online or in person. The reactions people have tell a story on their own. From the joys of the children looking around – sometimes even being inspired to build their own creations – to the adults who see my work and see something of themselves inside. You see a joy reflected in their eyes and that is something that encourages me to keep doing this.

CWR: Have you faced any other challenges, particularly in bringing this Project to others?

Kraemer: I always have challenges in sharing The Project. I believe that because this is from God it isn’t something that should be sitting in my apartment. It needs to be shared with everyone. What complicates the issue is that I don’t drive. Nor do I always have easy access to transportation. So, I can’t just go up to a parish I would like to display at and ask if they are interested. Because they would probably have to provide the transportation for the project and myself, I pretty much would need an invite, which is not always easy to gain.

CWR: You’ve used the Project to direct attention to the need for increased disability awareness within the Church. How have you incorporated this message directly into the Project?

Kraemer: Over the past few years I have made it a goal to include more mini-figures that represent those with common and easily seen disabilities. Such as putting in power chairs, wheelchairs, and those with service dogs. It can also be implied because of that we have people in the Church with invisible disabilities, which is the area that I personally fall into. It is to highlight that everyone has a place in the Church, no matter what challenge they tend to face. No one should be excluded.

CWR: On the topic of disability awareness, in what ways do you think the Church can be more welcoming to people with disabilities?

Kraemer: It starts with the mindset that we don’t pass judgment on people who come into the Church. We don’t know someone’s full story. It is not always easy to tell what struggles someone is dealing with on that day. Nor do we always know how that will impact them overall. More so when we open doors for people to help out in the Church. We can’t make assumptions on how someone is or what we think they can or cannot do.

CWR: What are your hopes and dreams for future iterations of the LEGO Church Project?

Kraemer: The dream is to be able to take this on the road for about five or six public displays. At the same time, I’d like to develop a few talks that I can give to highlight the importance of being open to those with disabilities and how we can use our talents to help share the faith with others. The idea is to encourage everyone, no matter what age.

CWR: Finally, is there a patron saint for the Project?

Kraemer: I would make a strong case that Blessed Solanus Casey has become the unofficial patron for my work, given the challenges he faced with trying to learn, which echo some of my own. Along with the fact that I had his portrait inside Season 18 and Season 20. I really love his cause for sainthood and there is also some family history with him. It really makes sense on so many levels.

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About Thomas J. Salerno 2 Articles
Thomas J. Salerno is a freelance writer living on Long Island. He holds a BA in anthropology from Stony Brook University. Through his writing, Thomas explores the intersection of the Catholic faith with nerd/geek culture. He is also a short story writer and aspiring novelist working in the genres of science fiction and fantasy.

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